The Search For Hope
Scott Lucas of Buzzfeed is not a Christian, but he called Christian scholars to see where we should find hope in hard times. This jumped out at me:
“We don’t have any special wisdom. We don’t have special answers,” Steven C. van den Heuvel, professor of systematic theology at the Evangelical Theological Faculty in Leuven, Belgium, told me. That’s a little unsettling to hear from the editor of Historical and Multidisciplinary Perspectives on Hope, published earlier this year, and one of the leaders of the Hope Project, a social science effort to measure hope.
What he meant is that he doesn’t see a clear role for his denomination in the larger community: It can nurture its own faith but doesn’t add to the larger conversation. “I stand in Europe in a secular context,” he said. “Essentially, the church doesn’t play a big role here. We are even more irrelevant than before.”
In Belgium, the virus — rather than drawing people toward faith — has brought a secular communion. “The guiding moments early on were the press conferences of the prime minister,” said van den Heuvel, when the nation would gather, at home in front of their televisions, to connect, find meaning, and mark the time in rituals.
I thought he might tell me how the secular world could draw lessons on how to have hope from the Christian world, but I was wrong. In fact, quite the opposite; van den Heuvel is looking externally.
Oh brother. That guy. A Christian theologian who believes that Christianity offers no special answers to the problem of hopelessness is like a doctor who doesn’t believe in medicine. What is the point of it all? One professor does not represent an entire institution, but if that’s how they roll at the Evangelical Theological Faculty in Leuven, then they should shut the thing down and open a pub in the building. Let the dead bury their dead.
Much better is the response he received from Anglican theologian Ephraim Radner:
Ephraim Radner seemed slightly surprised to talk to me. In August, he published an article titled “Theology After the Virus” on the website of the religious journal First Things, in which the professor of historical theology at Wycliffe College argued that Christians’ failure to offer anything to the outside world pointed to a need to retreat from the secular world. Out of the streets, back to the monastery.
“Churches have had little to say during this period beyond platitudes: encouragement, social responsibility, mutual care,” he wrote in his article — idle talk unsuited to the demands of modern life, let alone the pandemic.
His point was bracing and, to my ears, correct.
“There will be a deep thirst to forge some theological ‘response’ to the Time of the Virus,” he wrote. “I already hear exhortations from Christian leaders, reminding us that the present time is stirring up new powers of Christian proclamation. But most of this energetic cheer, I confess, seems to come down to ramping up current and long-standing commitments to justice, economic reinvention, democracy, environmental sustainability, and generic ‘hope.’”
All fine goals, but nothing particularly theological about them. Those sound like the hopes held by a political party or a book club. What do they have to do with faith?
For Radner, that’s an indictment of the sort of hopes offered by the Christian churches; they don’t offer an independent vision of what to hope for.
There’s more from Radner and others in the Scott Lucas article; read the whole thing.
This is a good place to bring up what Admiral James Stockdale said about hope and optimism. This is from a discussion of the “Stockdale Paradox,” as it emerged in the Jim Collins book Good To Great:
Collins told the story of Admiral James Stockdale who was a POW during the Vietnam War. Collins notes, “It just seemed so bleak—the uncertainty of his fate, the brutality of his captors, and so forth…how on earth did he deal with it…?”
When Collins asked that very question directly to Stockdale, he replied, “I never doubted not only that I would get out, but also that I would prevail in the end and turn the experience into the defining event of my life, which, in retrospect, I would not trade.”
Collins followed with another question: “Who didn’t make it out?”
“The optimists. Oh, they were the ones who said, ‘We’re going to be out by Christmas.’ And Christmas would come, and Christmas would go. Then they’d say, ‘We’re going to be out by Easter.’ And Easter would come, and Easter would go. And then Thanksgiving, and then it would be Christmas again. And they died of a broken heart….
This is a very important lesson. You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end—which you can never afford to lose —with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.”
For years I have talked in this space about how Christian hope is not the same thing as optimism. Optimism assumes that everything is going to work out fine. Christian hope is the conviction that even if things do not work out fine in this world, that our suffering has ultimate meaning, if we join it to Christ’s sacrifice. This is why the elderly ex-prisoners of conscience that my Slovak friend Timo Krizka interviewed for his project about those imprisoned by the Communist regime over their faith told him that their time in prison was some of the most joyful of their lives — precisely because they felt so close to God there. From Live Not By Lies:
Several years ago, Križka set out to honor his ancestor’s sacrifice by interviewing and photographing the still-living Slovak survivors of communist persecution, including original members of Father Kolaković’s fellowship, the Family. As he made his rounds around his country, Križka was shaken up not by the stories of suffering he heard—these he expected—but by the intense inner peace radiating from these elderly believers.
These men and women had been around Križka’s age when they had everything taken from them but their faith in God. And yet, over and over, they told their young visitor that in prison they found inner liberation through suffering. One Christian, separated from his wife and five children and cast into solitary confinement, testified that he had moments then that were “like paradise.”
“It seemed that the less they were able to change the world around them, the stronger they had become,” Križka tells me. “These people completely changed my understanding of freedom. My project changed from looking for victims to finding heroes. I stopped building a monument to the unjust past. I began to look for a message for us, the free people.”
The message he found was this: The secular liberal ideal of freedom so popular in the West, and among many in his postcommunist generation, is a lie. That is, the concept that real freedom is found by liberating the self from all binding commitments (to God, to marriage, to family), and by increasing worldly comforts—that is a road that leads to hell. Križka observed that the only force in society standing in the middle of that wide road yelling “Stop!” were the traditional Christian churches.
Timo goes on to say that he finally understood why despite the fact that his generation was so much more free and wealthier than their parents and grandparents, they suffered from the pain of anxiety from the instability of the world. The old people who had had everything taken from them had to find hope in God — and they, in turn, passed that secret on to their young interlocutor.
I think that my 2017 book The Benedict Option will draw a number of second looks now and in the days to come. It’s about building small forms of Christian community, and taking on the kinds of practices that will create a resilient Christianity for this post-Christian era. It’s about creating something beyond platitudes, something that arises out of a realistic — in the Stockdale sense — appraisal of where we are in this world, and where the church is. I wrote about this to a great extent earlier today, in the Paul Kingsnorth Riding The Wave post. Heaven knows I am completely opposed to the theological progressives within Christianity. I don’t want to hear the happy-clappy middle-class optimism of the usual preachers, who really don’t have anything to say to a country coming apart at the seams. Nor do I want to descend into the bilious miasma of the chronic conservative Christian complainers, whose only passion for the faith seems to be in griping. Nor am I interested in the nostalgic America-worship of the Patriot Churches, who come across as the right-wing mirror image of the Christians who make left-wing politics the core of their religious experience.
Where is hope? Let me ask you readers: where do you see hope these days? Do you think Christians have the answer? Why or why not? If you don’t see hope around you, can you talk a little about what hope would look like — that is, how you would know it if you were looking at it? Are you capable of receiving hope if it were offered to you in an unfamiliar form?
In your article, you start off with attacking my position on the relevance of Christian hope, as presented in the Buzzfeed article. Overlooking your personal remarks, which I found unpleasant, I can understand why, on the basis of that interview, you could draw the conclusion that I was denying the relevance of Christian hope. I myself felt an uneasiness as well with the way my view was presented (I didn’t see the article before it was published), and I have therefore asked Scott Lucas to edit the article, presenting my view in a way that is more in line with the interview itself, as well as with my intention. He has graciously (if partially) done so; you can find the revised article here (https://www.buzzfeednews.com/article/scottlucas/world-feels-hopeless-christian-scholars), with at the bottom a recognition of the changes made.
The revision made is only partial, but to be clear: I in no way deny Christian hope. I was merely commenting on the fact that the Church is not broadly seen as an institution with relevant answers when it comes to hope, at least in Europe. Based on that, I made the point that I believe that the Church has to embark on a radical, prayerful search, to find new words to speak about the mystery of Christian hope, much in line with how the theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who – witnessing the beginnings of the secularisation, in WW2 – saw it as the task of the church to find a new language for its faith. To characterize this radical search, I referred to the book Radical Hope, by Jonathan Lear. All this to say that I am not some belated ‘death of God’ theologian, urging people to look elsewhere for answers and comfort; I take the gospel seriously and together with you and other Christians, I hope to find words to point to the gospel of righteousness and grace, in a way that speaks to the heart of our secular neighbours.